“We are not gays,” declared a defiant Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to the UN General Assembly in 2015. One of the most prominent African leaders pushing a sustained attack on queer communities, he has claimed that homosexuality, “destroys nations,” referring to it as “a filthy, filthy disease” and a hedonistic import from the West, calling westerners “the vile ones whose moral turpitude we must mourn.”
It is hardly surprising, then, given the popularity of such statements, that there are still so few LGBTIQ movies coming out of Africa, particularly those featuring black protagonists. South African filmmaker and gay man John Trengove’s debut feature The Wound (Inxeba) is an exception.
Set in South Africa’s striking Eastern Cape during the secretive Xhosa male circumcision initiation Ulwaluko, The Wound interrogates traditional notions of masculinity and male sexuality.
“I’ve always thought it would be interesting to tell a story about same-sex desire within this very particular right of passage into manhood,” Trengove says.
“When there’s so much shit about homosexuality being un-African and being a threat to indigenous culture, my producer [Butan Vundla] and I realised there’s an analogy that we’re working with here which is the idea of a virus infecting an organism, with the organism being the culture and the virus being the initiate or the idea of gayness. So really going with that Mugabe notion of homosexuality being this invasive entity.”
Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival last year, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Award, The Wound has subsequently accrued a brace of trophies, including for best first feature at both the BFI London Film Festival and San Francisco’s queer Frameline Festival.
Trengove, who is white, knew he had to enlist the right collaborators to help tell this story. Co-written with Malusi Bengu and A Man Who Is Not a Man author Thando Mngqolozana, they interviewed many men who had been through the initiation, particularly gay men, with this endeavour doubling as casting process.
“You’re not supposed to speak about your experiences on the mountain, that’s central to the ritual,” Trengove notes, with the film sarking some controversy for doing so.
“Having said that, not only have people been speaking out it in the recent past, with Nelson Mandela maybe the most famous example, but the initiation has also come under fire for all sorts of different reasons, [including deaths of initiates after botched circumcisions] so we’re at a moment where there is a tremendous amount of heat and debate around the practice itself.”
Expanding on the subject matter of his 2014 short The Goat (iBhokhwe), The Wound focuses on the furtive interaction between two closeted guides. Xolani - played by multi-talented out gay singer and Piggy Boy’s Blues novelist Nakhane Touré - labours in a warehouse and waits eagerly for Ulwaluko every year so he can once again see his married with kids lover Vija, played by theatre star Bongile Mantsai.
Their illicit affair is made more fraught by the arrival of a troublesome initiative from Johannesburg, Kwanda (newcomer Niza Jay). An urbane young gay man, Kwanda has very little time for either the ritual or homophobia, internalised or otherwise, pushing Xolani to accept himself and embrace love.
The ensuing drama, As Xolani and Vija’s secret is threatened, has an almost Shakespearean curve greatly aided by luminous performances.
“Within five minutes of meeting Nakhane I just kind of knew that he would be very compelling on camera,” Trengove says. “There’s something translucent about his body, about his skin and the way in which emotion moves through him by osmosis.”
Trengove needed Touré to pull together contradictory ideas about what it means to be a man and the masks Xolani has to wear. The closer he is drawn to Vija and the more Kwanda pushes for openness, the more violence simmers.
“Working with Nakhane was very interesting because he had no formal training but really, as an artist, understood the fundamental principle that in order to be authentic you have to sort of put yourself in a place of discomfort on the edge of yourself without knowing what the outcome will be,” Trengove says.
Mantsai’s theatrical experience brings gravitas to the turbulent role of Vija. “He’s straight and quite a traditional Xhosa man who embodies a lot of those characteristics, but what I think he does so well is that he turns masculinity into a kind of a performance,” Trengove adds. “His character is as vulnerable as the other two, but he responds to that threat and that fear with this kind of exaggerated version of masculinity. Every time strong feeling comes up in him, the only way that he can respond is with a violent trigger.”
Jay, a young man, brings his own fire to Kwande. “He really is that character, this outspoken, defiant queen who doesn’t take shit from anybody. He just walked into the room and I was like, ‘ok, well there he is’.”
All three straddle two worlds, the ancient one of ritual and the encroaching modernity of the city. “I realised very early on the importance of constantly reminding the audience that this was in the here and now and the only way to do that was to bring this industrialised world into the edges of the film,” Trengove notes.
“So there’s constantly this feeling of another realm that is threatening to encroach and overwhelm, from electronic music to electricity pylons. It’s a story full of archetypes and polarised ideas and essentially a character who is caught between two impossible opposing forces, pushed to breaking point.”
The Wound is on limited release in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra from February 8.